We were late once again to Sacrament Meeting this past Sunday. The usual hangups of getting 4 children 8 and younger (including 1 grumpy, teething 15 month old) fed and ready for church. Like every other Sunday we were cursing ourselves for not beginning the process earlier, but also like every other Sunday the process included unanticipated surprises like having to change a messy diaper at the last moment, forgetting until we were nearly out the door a key component of the “care package” we take every Sunday to distract our children at least long enough to take the sacrament. It’s always something. Every Sunday. And like every other Sunday for the past several months I was struggling to scrape together enough desire to go in the first place. Our youngest was enough of a handful at this point that any sort of meaningful experience on any level was going to be unlikely. I had probably squeezed every drop of meaningfulness out of being a Hall Wanderer I could, but since neither of us had callings, we could devote all of our time to developing a method of reading scripture while chasing a baby around the building. “Scripture Chase,” I would call it. It has a certain ring to it…..
The week before we had finally broken down and let our two oldest (twins, brother and sister) become Apprentice Hall Wanderers by taking turns during Sacrament Meeting following the baby around in the hall. So I was actually able to listen for once when the entire bishopric took turns speaking. The bishop, of course, spoke last. I scowled as I listened to him announce a new policy for sacrament meetings: in the interest of conforming more closely to principles of sacrament meetings outlined in Elder Hales’ recent conference address the bishopric was asking ward members to arrive 10 minutes early and be seated 5 minutes before the start of the meeting. “We will try our hardest to be seated on the stand at the appropriate time and we hope you will try your hardest to be seated as well.” Oh, will you? I thought bitterly. How magnanimous! What sacrifice! Not only was the 2nd counselor the only one in the bishopric with small children, but since he was in meetings from the early morning on, his wife would be the one to have to struggle alone to have all their small children ready and seated. I couldn’t believe how out of touch these people were.
The bishop went on about how we weren’t reaping the spiritual blessings of sacrament meeting and that establishing an atmosphere of reverence and orderliness to the extent either was possible was essential to obtaining those blessings. I was only becoming more and more irritated. It was often a miracle we came to church at all. Many Sundays since we had our youngest we just told our kids one of us wasn’t feeling well and we just wouldn’t go. The bishop apparently couldn’t see the near-constant sacrifice many of us in the ward were making to come to church. Not to mention the fact that we didn’t have either callings or any close friends in the ward, no genuine connections of any kind. Attending every Sunday is essentially an act of grit and sheer will.
But then, to my surprise, he spent the last 10 full minutes of his talk addressing the families with young children in the ward. He said that he knew what it was like to struggle with his wife to get a family of several young ones ready for church and there on time, and what a battle it often was to be at church with them and get anything social or spiritual out of the meetings. He described young children as “rockets,” that trying to handle them was like trying to handle a live rocket with unlimited fuel. With that in mind, he proposed that the last 4 rows of benches in the chapel (in the middle and on both sides) be left vacant for young families. He asked the families with older children as well as the older folks in the ward to sit closer to the front or take the folding chairs in the back so that the families with little ones could be nearest the exits. He also pleaded with those who no longer had small children to not be judgmental of those who came in late but instead to be grateful and impressed that they had come at all. We were not, he said, a whole people when some were missing. We should be joyful when we see that they have joined us and concerned when we see that they are not there. He still wanted all of us, young families included, to make an effort to be there earlier in order for the sacrament experience to be as worshipful as possible, but he recognized that we were the ones who would find it most difficult to accomplish that and late or not it was far more important that we be present at some point than not at all.
Frankly, I was floored. I’ve often said that one of the most enriching (and humbling) experiences as a human being is to experience when someone shatters our expectations for the better and makes us rethink our judgments. It is, in my opinion, a revelatory event, something akin to other, more familiar forms of revelation. And even though I’ve experienced it many times it never ceases to astonish. I had to admit to my wife that he had addressed as nearly perfectly as could be expected my silent concerns. Having lived in over two dozen wards, I had never seen a bishop do anything like that. The bishops of my wards had generally been out of touch and even condescending, or extremely passive. I had heard “legends” of other bishops who were quite different but my experiences overall had not been positive. This was an extremely welcome change.
Later, during the combined 5th Sunday meeting, we were in a room adjacent to the Relief Society room, set apart for parents with young children. There was an intercom in the room which allowed us and the other parents gathered there to listen to the meeting. I’ve hardly attended any 5th Sunday meetings; the room is always too crowded for sitting with our little rocket. Plus, I remembered in my last ward six 5th Sunday meetings in a row devoted to emergency preparedness and another six to reading the entire Preach My Gospel manual. I was prepared for mediocrity on an appalling grand scale. But I was surprised again to hear the bishop continue his earlier address. He wanted the meeting to proceed town hall style–people voicing their concerns and addressing questions to the bishopric. The first one to speak out was an older man. He described his experience as a bishop many years ago (it’s amazing how many old guys never temporally and cognitively advance beyond their years as bishops and stake presidents. It’s like the world essentially stopped the moment they were released and it has never started up again). He recounted that it didn’t matter what time church started, there were always some families who would always arrive 15 minutes late. Late was late, period. Luckily around 7 women in a row responded to him. It was, sincerely, thrilling to listen to. These women nailed the issue down precisely. Some recounted the same horrors we were familiar with, and some were women with older children, remembering those dark days and offering sympathy and encouragement, but also reminding everyone that teenagers were a whole new level of difficulty when it came to church meetings, and to please remember that that dynamic was difficult in its own way. The stake president’s wife (Sister Warner, who lives in our ward) remembered that she and her husband had been married for some time before they had their first child. He was immediately called as a bishop and served the entire time they completed their family. She remembered many Sundays sitting alone with screaming or rowdy children, having given up long ago trying to have a meaningful experience for herself. As a lost cause, she recalled having been reduced, not unironically as a mother, to making sure that others around her could worship and listen by trying to keep her children distracted and quiet. She vowed many times she would never return. Then one Sunday an older woman started bringing treats and toys for her children. She sat with her every Sunday and would constantly tell her how much she loved her children and what a joy it was to engage with them during the meeting. Sister Warner’s voice trembled as she asserted that that woman had truly saved her life and that she would always remember her with reverence. She pleaded with everyone in the room not just to not judge those who are clearly struggling to come, but to actually be an asset to them, to become, themselves, a reason for these young families to want to attend church. The bishop was also clearly impressed with her words and the meeting ended with a similarly impassioned plea from him.
I reflected later on his comments about wholeness, that we are not whole if we are not all together. An earlier talk in that same sacrament meeting had addressed our own individual brokenness and need for redemption. The two are in fact intimately related. Jana Riess recently wrote an excellent little piece that touches on this theme. This part is particularly relevant:
The LDS Church is a family, not a club. News flash: we don’t get to choose the people in our families. There are likely some folks we feel we could jolly well get along without, or people whose views make us uncomfortable. But even if we don’t understand each other—even if we can’t stand each other—that doesn’t alter the bedrock relationship that exists between us. We are family, period. I’m fine playing the role of the grumpy aunt at the family reunion who points out that the potato salad has been sitting in the sun too long or that we need to stop living in the past. You don’t have to listen to me. But you don’t get to kick me out of the family.
I wonder, in fact, if brokenness is something that is simply a part of the system. We are not whole if some of us are missing, but when are we all actually together? Where is the ward with 100% activity all the time? Where is the human life that that is 100% healed and whole with not the smallest piece missing? Where is the Zion of the scriptures, the community of one heart and mind, with no poor among them? And yet–would we say, then, that it’s all simply a dismal failure? The divine social experiment is just frustratingly forever out of reach?
Well. Maybe. But then there’s this. And this. And this. And this. And this. And thousands upon thousands of other stories written and unwritten, tales of forgiveness, reconciliation, repentance, humility, and, perhaps, above all, the astonishment of redemption through the utterly unanticipated surprise that one’s fellow beings often visit upon us, people whom we have pegged with precision accuracy as the ward gossip or the condescending bishop or the superficial relief society president, or the judgmental brother or sister what’s-her-name. Do such bewildering acts of grace come too infrequently? Probably. And undoubtedly we too often act and think in ways that are all too predictable to others. But when it does come–the replenishing waters of life and joy. And often that’s enough to sustain us for a time. In the end, personal and institutional brokenness are permanent features of our individual and religious lives, to varying degrees. We still work to heal and be healed, and we patch up wounds here, mend shattered relationships there, and it’s never enough, and it’s never going to be enough. By hopefully (maybe more often than we realize because we haven’t been paying attention) every now and then we experience an act of overwhelming grace visited upon us, when we’ve lost our strength, helping us to go on for at least a while longer. Sometimes its a pure act of God. But more often it’s the surprising love of others, acting out of character, extending themselves in vulnerability and openness, inspired by something beyond them yet within them. (Don’t worry, they’re just as surprised by their own behavior as you are). And in those moments we see and experience, always as if for the first time, the authentic glory and majesty of God. Redemption and reconciliation are nothing if not consistently and utterly astonishing.